How a falling meteorite precipitated the war between Austria and France. The Ensisheim meteorite, which fell in 1492 in front of the walls of the former Austrian capital, is a historical event for several reasons. Let’s go back in time to that pivotal year when the Middle Ages came to an end!
On the 12 October 1492
Christopher Columbus’ expedition left Spain on 3 August and reached the Bahamas. It was the discovery of America… even though, until his death, Columbus believed that he had reached the eastern coast of Asia.
This event was nonetheless resounding and opened a new era. For Western historiography, this date marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of a new era: the Modern Age. These lasted until the French Revolution.
The world is therefore changing. Or at least the perception of it.
And one dynasty was to rule much of this New World in the 16th and 17th centuries: the House of Habsburg.
But let’s go back to 1492.
On 7 November 1492
In the late morning (shortly after 11 am), a prodigious event occurred in the sky, in full view of all the inhabitants of the Upper Rhine. After causing a deafening noise, an object fell at high speed, leaving a trail of light behind it.
The stone crashed into a field on the outskirts of the town of Ensisheim in former Austria, leaving a crater one metre deep.
A young boy, who was the only witness to the fall in the field, told the inhabitants of Ensisheim where the fall was.
Immediately, a crowd of curious people rush to observe the crater.
What a bunch of vandals!
They throw themselves on it to mutilate the stone.
One imagines that the superstitious villagers are only too happy to seize pieces of stone from the sky.
They are good luck charms!
Fortunately, the Landvogt (a kind of mayor at the time) intervenes in person to stop this act of vandalism. He ordered the stone to be moved in front of the church.
Here comes Maximilian I
The meteorite interested the young Maximilian of Austria. The heir to the Habsburg family and pretender to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire arrived with his court on 26 November in Ensisheim to admire the meteorite.
He asked that the stone be hung in the choir of the church. It remained there until the French Revolution when it was kept in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar for ten years.
The precious meteorite returned to Ensisheim after the Revolution and, following the collapse of the church tower in the 1850s, the stone was exhibited in the Regency Palace.
Why is the Ensisheim meteorite historic?
The incident is important because it is the oldest meteorite whose fall could be observed, and this by a whole population.
It is said that the shattering noise was heard over a radius of more than 150 km. The detonation of the meteorite breaking through the atmosphere is said to have been louder in Lucerne in central Switzerland than in Ensisheim itself.
The earth is constantly bombarded by meteorites (about twenty falls per year) but they go unnoticed because of the vastness of the oceans and deserts. The Ensisheim meteorite was the first to be collected and preserved in the western world.
Its fall into the earth’s atmosphere caused a powerful detonation which earned it the nickname “Thunder Stone” (German: Donnerstein).
According to the sources of the time, the meteorite plunged from the sky and crashed into a wheat field somewhere between Ensisheim and Battenheim, in a place between the Oberfeld (a field) and the Gissgang (which seems to me to be a small river tributary of the Ill River).
This allows us to roughly locate the impact site.
If you have reliable sources of the exact place where the young child had discovered the meteorite, thank you for letting me know! 🙂
The Ensisheim meteorite: a divine message?
The first written mention of the event dates from only a few days after the fall. It was written by Sébastien Brant (1458-1521), professor of literature at the University of Basel.
Sebastian Brant immediately seized on the story to interpret it for political purposes. This enabled him to ensure that he was aware of it and above all to control its meaning.
And for this, the German satirist had a fabulous tool at his disposal: the printing press.
Indeed, the first European book printed by Gutenberg with movable type dates from 1451. In other words, it is still a recent technology!
And Brant created the buzz!
In record time, the Basel, Reutlingen and Strasbourg press published four illustrated leaflets with a catchy title.
The document had two columns: one in Latin (left), the other in German (right). Above all, it contained a clever admonition to Maximilian of Austria, the future emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
That’s it, it was social networking before its time.
God will punish the French!
After detailing the fall of the meteorite, Brant launches into an interpretation for political purposes. The ‘divine’ phenomenon is associated with two camps:
- the good guys (the Austrians) and
- the bad guys (the French).
Those who trembled when they heard the noise (the French) are to be punished, and the Imperials rewarded.
The implication is that this is ‘divine’ encouragement to Maximilian of Austria to declare war on the French king, Charles VIII.
Brant is clear: the meteorite heralds Maximilian’s victory over the French and the beginning of an era of prosperity for the Habsburgs.
What’s more, the meteorite could not have come at a better time! Right in front of the walls of the administrative capital of Anterior Austria, on Habsburg land. Right on target!
Imagine if it had fallen in front of Downing Street in London on the occasion of the Brexit!
What a sign… or what a boon.
Maximilian goes to war with the French
At the sight of this ‘divine’ sign, Maximilian declared war on Charles VIII. And on 17 January 1493, the Austrians won the battle of Dournon near Salins (Franche-Comté) against the French.
On 23 May, the protagonists signed the Senlis peace treaty. The succession of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who died at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, was finally settled. The treaty divides the Burgundian possessions as follows:
- the Duchy of Burgundy reverted to the King of France. This will be Burgundy as we know it today.
- the county of Burgundy remained with the House of Habsburg (Maximilian I). This will be Franche-Comté.
But you know the best part?
Ironically, Ensisheim is now a town located in France!
Yes, in 1648, when the Treaties of Westphalia were signed, Louis XIV managed to get his hands on it!
Where to see the Ensisheim meteorite?
You can see the Ensisheim meteorite at the Musée de la Régence in Ensisheim.
When it fell to earth, the meteorite weighed about 130 kilos.
The main piece on display in Ensisheim weighs only 53.831 kg.
Much smaller fragments can be found in natural history museums around the world:
- Berlin (905.7 g),
- London (609.2 g) and
- Vienna, Austria (453.7 g).
But the second most important piece in terms of weight is the fragment exhibited at the Natural History Museum in Paris (8.343 kg). I had seen the main piece in Ensisheim in 1998… I was able to take this picture in Paris in 2015:
The Ensisheim meteorite is of the stony type (ordinary chondrite type LL6).
And if you are interested in meteorites, you should know that every year on the second last weekend of June, a “Bourse aux météorites” is organised in Ensisheim. This is a unique event, an international meteorite fair.
For more information on the Ensisheim meteorite
- Read this article in French on our blog Mon Grand-Est
- Discover Ensisheim: what to see [in French]
- The Wikipedia page on the meteorite
- The meteorite on the site meteorite.fr
- Odile Kammerer’s article “Un prodige en Alsace à la fin du 15e siècle : la météorite d’Ensisheim on persee.fr [in French]
Photos of Ensisheim
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